An expert's point of view on a current event.

Green-Lined Vision Is Blurring Reality in Israel-Palestine

Policymakers can no longer rely on an imaginary border that supposedly divides two states as a one-state reality takes shape on the ground.

By , a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington.
green line west bank
A demonstrator waves a Palestinian flag during a protest against Israel's controversial barrier near the West Bank village of Bilin on July 13, 2007. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images

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Just as events in Jerusalem and Gaza put the Palestinian struggle for freedom back on center stage, the way scholars and analysts are thinking and talking about it is starting to shift, however belatedly, away from a fanciful framework and toward one grounded in reality.

For years, as the debate about the future of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has raged, disagreement about the outlines of future solutions have characterized divides, such as: Do you support one-state or two? Any useful discussion that helps move the situation forward should not start by building consensus around a vision for the future, as important as that will be, but by first having a clear perception of the problem. After all, it is a lot harder for people to collectively apply a solution to a problem they do not see the same way.

For decades, there has been a one-state problem in Israel-Palestine. Since 1967, one state has militarily ruled over the territory from the river to the sea. That state, of course, is Israel. For over half a century, an ostensibly temporary occupation has entrenched itself as permanent and has been normalized by those refusing to see through the guise.

The ultimate power in the West Bank shaping Palestinian lives is the state of Israel and not the Palestinian Authority. Because the PA, lacks, well, authority, it exists at the pleasure of the Israeli state. Its officials must have permission to enter and exit the territory where they supposedly exercise authority, and their continued existence is tied to the extent to which they coordinate security with the Israeli military occupation.

For over half a century, an ostensibly temporary occupation has entrenched itself as permanent and been normalized.

With the exception of the 19 years between 1948 and 1967 when Israel was established and the West Bank and Gaza were under Jordanian and Egyptian control, respectively, it is hard to think of the last time the cities in the hills of the West Bank and those in the coastal plain were governed separately and not part of a shared territorial unit. Now, half a century after 1967, a one-state reality is firmly entrenched.

Israel’s colonization of the West Bank proliferated over these years, and it has sunk billions of dollars into integrating these settlements with the rest of the country. Palestinian enclaves, as a result, are scattered and isolated with no contiguity. What’s more, Palestinians and Israelis themselves are all over the map and while Israelis have full citizenship rights no matter where in this territory they live, Palestinians have a varied set of limited rights as second-class citizens or no citizenship at all.

Palestinians inside Israel are treated as demographic threats and denied equal treatment before the law; Palestinians in the West Bank are ruled by Israel’s military with no voice in that government at all; Palestinians in Jerusalem are cut off and in a separate situation all together; and Palestinians in Gaza are besieged and routinely bombarded by the Israeli military in a massive open-air prison.

But despite this reality, which shapes the lives of Israelis and Palestinians every day, some have preferred to hold onto the Green Line. That 1949 line, famously sketched in green ink during armistice talks, exists only on maps—fewer and fewer maps by the day. In fact, as Gershom Gorenberg has written, the green line began to disappear from official Israeli maps after an original directive written by Yigal Allon on Oct. 30, 1967, just months after it occupied the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

While the demarcation is valuable in an international law framework because it delineates where belligerently occupied territory is, it is entirely disregarded by an Israeli state which disdains international law, increasingly rejects the concept of occupation, and has been deepening its grip on the territory signaling its intentions to annex it permanently.

In some respects, the green-lined vision is attractive. For example, it emphasizes principles of international law and helps hold a territorial space for a Palestinian state to one day be realized in. But for others, it is a useful way to displace responsibility and avoid politically inconvenient implications. Among Democrats in the United States, for example, as the party’s base grows increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, officials rely on professed support of a two-state solution as a quick way to signal displeasure with the horrific status quo.

But as the one-state reality deepens and as human-rights violations mount year after year, this tokenism detached from any policy shifts to back it up increasingly feels like empty rhetoric. In many ways, the refrain, “I support a two-state solution” from Democrats functions much like “thoughts and prayers” does from Republicans each time a mass shooting reignites the American debate over gun control. It is a way to distance lawmakers from terrible outcomes they have the capacity to prevent while dodging responsibility for continually failing to do so.

Green-lined vision also perpetuates a framework that includes a false parity between the powerful state of Israel and the stateless Palestinians it occupies militarily. In doing so, it creates alternate realities that allow policymakers to look the other way. Green-lined vision allows us to speak of the relevance of the Palestinian Authority, for example, its “government” and its elections and policies, creating a semblance of balance between entities when one in fact dominates the other.

Take the way the U.S. Department of State approaches its human-rights reporting on Israel-Palestine, with green-line vision consistently on. The report for Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza is broken into two sections, one for Israel and one for the West Bank and Gaza. It is only by doing so that the report section on Israel can start with this sentence: “Israel is a multiparty parliamentary democracy.”

This is only remotely possible if one entirely ignores the fact that millions of people ruled by the Israeli state have no right to vote for the government that rules them. This is no small part of the total population, nor is this condition short-lived. In fact, this has been the case for five of seven decades of the Israeli state’s existence—more the norm than the exception.

Green-lined vision perpetuates a framework that includes a false parity between the powerful state of Israel and the stateless Palestinians.

Freedom House also suffers from the same problem of green-lined vision, regularly rating Israel as “free” because it splits off the millions of Palestinians Israel exerts military control over, relegating those whom it denies suffrage into a separate category.

Green-lined vision also distorts reality in conversations about what is to be done. Even in areas where there is vast international consensus around destructive practices, as in the case of opposition to Israeli settlement building, green-lined vision leads to different and illogical conclusions about practical responses.

Israeli settlements exist because of Israeli state policy formulated by the government of Israel and implemented by the agencies and military of the state. But green-lined vision leads people to see the settlements as something separate from the state, so opposition to the settlements gets targeted at the settlements themselves and not the state that is responsible for creating and sustaining them.

This approach has long been evident in arguments against using the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to pressure the Israeli government as typified in a 2012 article by Peter Beinart. Boycott the settlements, he argued back then in the New York Times, not Israel—because of the green line, of course. Similarly, policies around product labeling, to differentiate between those made in occupied territory and those made in Israel, are rooted in the same principle of displaced accountability.

To his credit, Beinart himself has come around in recent years, arguing in 2020 that a one-state reality exists and equal rights for all within that state is the way forward. In the first argument, the words “Green Line”’ appeared nine times; in the second, none. Beinart is of course not the only commentator to abandon green-lined vision. A growing consensus among Middle East experts is emerging. A recent poll of scholars and analysts of the Middle East focused on current policy issues in the region found that 59 percent of respondents describe the “current reality in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza” as “a one-state reality akin to apartheid.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a long, well-documented report concluding that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid and persecution against the Palestinian people, in part stemming from a policy intending to dominate Palestinians in all of the land. Around the same time, the Carnegie Endowment released a major report which recognizes that the current two-state peace process as “scaffolding [that] sustains occupation and is structurally incapable of delivering peace and human security” and argues that the U.S. government should assert that in the absence of two-states it would “support an alternative solution that guarantees full equality and enfranchisement for all those residing in the territory under Israeli control.”

For a long time, in private conversations, analysts and policymakers would all acknowledge the one-state reality.

What is happening now is not just that a growing number of voices are ditching green-lined vision but that they are finally doing so publicly. For a long time, in private conversations, analysts and policymakers would all acknowledge the one-state reality—but now they are abandoning green-lined vision.

As early as 1967, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate warned that continued Israeli settlement expansion would lead to permanent Israeli control over the West Bank. Various U.S. officials have warned about this too, perhaps former President Jimmy Carter most famously in his 2006 book warning of the unavoidable apartheid reality if Israeli didn’t reverse course.

Long before then, in the early 1980s, the late Meron Benvenisti noted that Israel’s settlement expansion meant it was “five minutes to midnight,” warning of de facto annexation when Israel reached 100,000 settlers in the West Bank. Now, 40 years and half a million Israeli settlers later, we are well past midnight. Indeed, the sun has long since dawned on a one-state reality and the bright rays are now making it clear for all to see that green-lined vision is irrelevant. That is a good thing.

As more people across the world are abandoning green-lined vision, Palestinians themselves are increasingly mobilizing in ways that reflect the one-state reality. Just look at recent events around the pending forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem. The city at the center of Palestinian life brought Palestinians from all directions together in action on the ground, and in virtual spaces as well. Thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel joined in the protests with mobilizations taking place in Yaffa, Haifa, Nazareth, and Umm al-Fahm, all cities inside Israel.

They organized bus trips to stand with Jerusalemites as Israeli forces raided Muslim holy sites and beat and arrested protesters. When Israeli police stopped their buses on the road outside of Jerusalem, they got off the buses, shut down the highway, and continued the journey on foot. Palestinians from Jerusalem met them with their cars to bring them to the holy city. Ultimately, this mass mobilization forced the Israeli authorities to relent and open the road. Some 90,000 Palestinians prayed at al-Aqsa that night. More and more Palestinians are realizing that only in a joint effort across the land can they achieve a more equitable future.

Indeed, the future of Israel-Palestine will increasingly take shape with no regard for an imaginary line etched in green. The lines that remain to be crossed are thresholds of political courage—and such shifts become easier by the day as a consensus is building around not just recognizing the reality on the ground, but doing something about it.

Yousef Munayyer is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington. Twitter: @YousefMunayyer